(Editor's Note: A correction has been made to this story. See end of this story for details.)
Talk radio, long a bastion of charismatic, conservative show hosts, may be reaching a turning point as ratings fall and audiences change.
The most telling evidence of this is the fact that Rush Limbaugh's January move from KFI-AM, 640, to KEIB-AM, 1150, in Los Angeles — where KFI once was the No. 1 station in the market — failed to make a difference in either station's ratings. KFI has remained mostly flat and sits at No. 10 in the market, with a 2.9 rating, while KEIB, which changed its call letters to reflect Limbaugh's slogan, "excellence in broadcasting," has maintained about a 0.5 rating since the station rebranded in January.
Moreover, ratings have plummeted at many stations where Cumulus Media Inc. has talk programming. The Atlanta company in April fired several employees from Little Rock’s KARN-FM/AM, 102.9/920, including longtime conservative talk host Dave Elswick.
Holland Cooke, a radio consultant from Rhode Island, said there are two trends contributing to this development: Huge radio corporations are shouldering enormous debt, leading to shrinking assets in small- and medium-market stations, and younger audiences are losing interest in shows patterned after leading talk show hosts.
Cooke — whose experience lies mostly with medium-sized markets like Little Rock — said the bigger the radio company, the worse off they are.
“The two biggest, Cumulus and Clear Channel, are carrying untenable debt,” he said. “There’s not enough money in nature to pay off what they owe.”
That results in companies deconsolidating, and sometimes that means shrinking their stations in markets like Little Rock.
The upshot of this, Cooke said, is that mom-and-pop stations are “having a great time.”
“This next generation of mom-and-pops that are small groups, independent and locally based, seem to have spotted the bottom, or close enough to it,” he said.
That may be good news for smaller radio stations, but not necessarily for talk show hosts. Cooke said the changing audience traces back to many hosts emulating the success of big names like Limbaugh.
“The smaller-market guys are part of a legion of Rush-wannabes who read Rush’s early success,” Cooke said.
Cooke lauded Limbaugh’s radio skills, but pointed out that his subject matter has become increasingly one-sided and will eventually alienate his audience. Limbaugh is at his roots an entertainer, Cooke said, a fact that’s been “misconstrued by wannabes,” resulting in an “I’m right, you’re wrong; I talk, you listen” atmosphere.
Talk radio, he said, should be a two-way show where “you make the audience the star, rather than Limbaugh’s special kind of dialogue that degenerates to a monologue.”
While Limbaugh and his imitators are still very popular in certain markets — particularly small ones — Cooke said what will eventually “doom” them is demographics.
“Depending on where you set the hash marks, you’ve got 80 to 90 million millennials about to take the reins of the American economy, and to them, these people are crazy uncle acts,” Cooke said. “It’s about stuff they don’t care about, and it’s the same thing every day. Ultimately, that demographic is going to work against us. In the meantime, ratings speak for themselves.”
KARN’s Nielsen Audio ratings fell from 4.4 in winter 2013 to 3.4 in winter 2014.
But Elswick, the former host at KARN — who noted that he was “not at liberty to say” what is next in his radio career — told Arkansas Business that during his time as a host he wasn’t concerned about appealing to a younger demographic.
“There are some in talk business who think talk radio is a 25-54 demographic,” he said. “I believe — and Nielsen will bear me out — that talk is much more 45-plus. Which isn’t bad. The youngest boomer will be 50 coming up on Jan. 1, 2015. By 2017 boomers will control 70 percent of the disposable income in America. Why would I try to reach a 25-year-old when a 55-year-old has the money to spend on what they want to buy?
“I think Clear Channel, Cumulus and other large companies that are publicly traded have lost the real reason radio exists, and that’s to serve local interests.”
He said members of the younger audience will “listen in an entirely different way. Probably on a stream in their car. Radio will become much more fragmented. However, as long as there are politicians, and trillions of dollars being sucked out of taxpayer wallets, there will be people who want to discuss the different aspects of spending vs. programs, etc.”
On the other hand, another of Arkansas’ conservative talk hosts, Alice Stewart, tries to vary the viewpoints and age groups represented in her show.
Stewart, an Atlanta native, came to Arkansas to work for KARK-TV, Channel 4. She joined then-Gov. Mike Huckabee’s communications staff and then followed him on his presidential campaign in 2008.
Stewart’s show airs on KHTE-FM, The Voice, in Little Rock. (Arkansas Business Online Editor Lance Turner regularly joins her shows on Monday to promote the new weekly issue of Arkansas Business.) Stewart named Limbaugh as an inspiration in her radio career, as well as other conservative hosts like Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham.
However, Stewart said, she strays from the Limbaugh model by showing both sides of a discussion. Her bent is clearly conservative, but she said she tries to have a full presentation of the issues she discusses.
Stewart said “there’s clearly an audience” for conservative talk radio, but it’s hard to quantify that in her case: KHTE changed to its current talk format in January 2013 and no longer subscribes to Nielsen Audio ratings.
Its last available rating was 1.3 for winter 2013, during most of which time it was still a pop music station.
“I approach the microphone from the standpoint of presenting both sides of the story, having an honest discussion of it, whether talking about an issue at the state Capitol, or Washington, D.C., or talking about two candidates running for office. People are smart enough to make up their own minds. My … goal is to give them the best info they can get, and hopefully they learn something along the way.”
She said she “never pulls any punches or catches anyone off guard.”
“I like to think I’m respectful to all guests,” she said. “I have Republicans and Democrats on the show. I have a segment called Spin Room where I have a Republican and a Democrat and they discuss back and forth and have a respectful discussion on issues.”
Cooke recommended that in order to combat the demographic problem, talk hosts should “talk about stuff that matters.”
“We’re car radio, and to me that’s a proving ground,” he said. “Fifty-one percent of listeners are driving. If we can engage them, we’re doing something right. Anything you talk about, if you make the listener go, ‘Huh,’ and tell them something they don’t know, that’s impactful content.”
Stewart said she believes she’s meeting these criteria.
“I’m not going to beat a topic or a story into the ground,” Stewart said. “I can pretty much tell when it’s run its shelf life. I want to make sure to keep topics fresh or relevant.”
Finally, Cooke suggested that talk hosts shouldn’t invent bad news when it’s not really present.
“How many days a week can you be told the sky is falling before you stop believing in Chicken Little?” he said.
But is the sky really falling for conservative radio?
Doug Krile, executive director of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association, offered one other perspective.
“It seems to me that a lot of this is cyclical,” he said. “Listeners like it when the people on talk radio support and encourage their point of view. Is the ratings drop a sign that all of the ‘former’ listeners have changed their personal political stance? The elections will be a much better indicator of that than any analysis I’d provide, but it seems that kind of wholesale shift would be unlikely.”
(Correction, May 13, 2014: In the original version of this story, Arkansas Business reported erroneously that Rush Limbaugh's show's ranking had fallen in New York and Los Angeles. The story has been corrected.)